Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - (Suid Afrika Vorentoe (South Africa Ahead) 2003 | Acrylic on ballroom shoes | 34 x 38 x 20cm (perspex dome)
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Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective

“A Canvas of Colors and Cultures: The Remarkable Journey of Esther Mahlangu”

Good morning to art enthusiasts and culture curators!

Today, I am thrilled to share an extraordinary event in the art world. Next month, the esteemed Iziko Museums in Cape Town will become the proud host of a monumental retrospective showcasing the vibrant and illustrious career of Dr. Esther Mahlangu. This exhibition, not only a celebration of her over 50-year journey in the art realm but also a testament to her global acclaim, is a narrative woven with the vibrant threads of African culture and contemporary artistry.

The Exhibition: A Tapestry of Tradition and Modernity

Curated by the insightful Nontobeko Ntombela, the exhibition titled “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective,” is a masterful curation of Mahlangu’s expansive oeuvre. Ntombela, a distinguished academic and curator focusing on modern and contemporary South African art, brings a nuanced understanding to this exhibition, capturing the essence of Mahlangu’s work and her transformative impact on African art.

Housed within the historic walls of the Iziko South African National Gallery, this retrospective will be open to the public from February 18 until August 11, 2024, before embarking on a global tour. This journey will include stops at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg and several prestigious venues in the United States starting early 2026. The Melrose Gallery, representing Esther Mahlangu globally, plays a pivotal role in orchestrating this exhibition, blending artistry with meticulous organization.

For a deeper dive into Esther Mahlangu’s extraordinary journey, visit Esther Mahlangu’s Profile on

A Spectrum of Creativity: Mahlangu’s Artistic Odyssey

Mahlangu’s work is a symphony of colors and forms, echoing the rich heritage of the Ndebele tradition while embracing modern artistic expressions. The retrospective offers a comprehensive view of her journey, featuring over 100 artworks loaned from international collections, historic photographs, and a short film that collectively narrate her artistic evolution.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Mahlangu’s BMW 525i Art Car, returning to South Africa for the first time in over three decades. Mahlangu’s collaboration with BMW, which began in 1991, marked her as the first woman and the first African artist to join the prestigious BMW Art Car Collection. This partnership is a profound example of her innovative spirit, as she bridges traditional African art with contemporary global platforms. Discover more about this unique collaboration at BMW, Electric AI Canvas: A Symphony of Art and Technology on

The Artistic Genesis: From Ndebele Walls to Global Galleries

Mahlangu’s artistic journey is a tale of resilience, innovation, and self-discovery. Taught by her grandmother and mother in the early 1940s, she honed her skills in the traditional Ndebele art of mural painting. Her story, as she recounts, is one of perseverance and a gradual ascent to mastery. Initially painting in secret on the back of her house, her talent eventually became undeniable, leading her family to recognize her exceptional skill. This moment of acknowledgment, as she fondly recalls, was when she truly knew she was good at painting. This retrospective is framed around Mahlangu’s self-realization and artistic journey, offering a unique perspective through her voice and self-positioning.

Mahlangu’s work transcends the boundaries of traditional canvas, displaying a remarkable fluency across a variety of mediums. From small, cherished keepsakes to large-scale public installations and murals, her artistry speaks volumes. She has adeptly adapted her traditional Ndebele motifs to novel surfaces such as sculptures, ceramics, and everyday objects, thereby transforming them into vibrant canvases that reflect her unique perspective.

Her art invites contemplation on various themes, interweaving the past with the present, and exploring the intersections of art, society, history, and cultural identity. Mahlangu’s work is not just visually captivating; it is a dialogue about the resilience of cultural traditions and their evolution in contemporary society. This aspect of her work resonates with the broader narrative of African art and its role in social and cultural discourse, as explored in African Artists and Social Justice: Art as a Catalyst for Change on

The Cultural Significance and Global Impact of Mahlangu’s Work

This retrospective is more than an art exhibition; it is a celebration of Esther Mahlangu’s life, her artistic genius, and her contribution to the global art scene. Recognized as one of the few South African artists to present a retrospective exhibition in renowned museums worldwide, Mahlangu’s work has become a symbol of triumph and an inspiration to many.

Dr. Bongani Ndhlovu, Acting CEO of Iziko Museums, articulates this sentiment, acknowledging Mahlangu as a living symbol of triumph against adversity. Her approach to art, which integrates African cultural heritage with contemporary motifs, continues to inspire new generations of artists and art enthusiasts alike. Learn more about the hosting venue at

Peter van Binsbergen, CEO of BMW Group South Africa, also highlights the significance of Mahlangu’s contribution, emphasizing the shared history and appreciation for art that transcends boundaries. This is evident in the BMW Art Car project, where Mahlangu’s design not only represented a fusion of art and automotive engineering but also marked a significant moment in the intersection of African art and global platforms.

Esther Mahlangu’s story is a vivid chapter in the annals of art history, a narrative that weaves together the threads of cultural identity, artistic innovation, and global recognition. Her legacy will continue to inspire, to challenge, and to redefine the boundaries of what art can be. As we celebrate her monumental retrospective, we are reminded of the power of art to bridge worlds, to tell stories, and to keep cultures alive.

Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to the enduring spirit of the Ndebele tradition and its vibrant presence in the contemporary art world. Her work serves as a vibrant reminder of the rich tapestry of African artistry, its relevance, and its evolving narrative in the global art discourse.

As we look to the future, Mahlangu’s influence will undoubtedly continue to ripple through generations, inspiring artists and art lovers alike. Her legacy is a reminder that art is not just a creation of the hands, but a manifestation of the heart and soul, a reflection of culture, and a conversation across time.

Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - ( Vessel 2021 | Acrylic on GRP | 20 x 40 cm)
Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - ( Vessel 2021 | Acrylic on GRP | 20 x 40 cm)

The Globalization of Ndebele Art: From Local to Universal

Esther Mahlangu’s influence in the art world is a testament to the power of cultural expression in a globalized context. Her journey from the rural settings of South Africa to international acclaim is a story of cultural transmission and transformation. By bringing the traditional Ndebele art form to a global audience, Mahlangu has not only preserved her cultural heritage but also redefined its boundaries, infusing it with a contemporary essence that resonates across different cultures and geographies.

Her participation in the exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” in 1989 in Paris was a pivotal moment, catapulting her into international fame. This event marked her transition from a communal practice to establishing her own agency as a contemporary artist. Mahlangu’s work, while deeply rooted in the Ndebele tradition, speaks a universal language of form, color, and pattern, transcending cultural barriers and appealing to a diverse global audience.

For an in-depth exploration of how Mahlangu and other artists are revolutionizing African art, visit Esther Mahlangu and the Global Revolution of Ndebele Art on

The Art of Collaboration: Merging Traditions with Modernity

Mahlangu’s collaborations are a key aspect of her global impact. Her work with BMW on the Art Car project and the Electric AI canvas are prime examples of how she blends traditional art with contemporary mediums and global brands. These collaborations have not only expanded her artistic repertoire but have also brought traditional Ndebele art into new and unexpected contexts, challenging perceptions of African art and its place in the modern world.

Her partnerships extend beyond the automotive industry, having worked with fashion brands like Comme des Garçons, shoe companies like Melissa and EYTYS, and even creating a design for the Belvedere (RED) bottle campaign. Each collaboration is a dialogue between her rich cultural heritage and modern artistic expressions, creating a fusion that is both innovative and respectful of traditional art forms.

Mahlangu’s Legacy: Inspiring a New Generation

Esther Mahlangu’s influence extends far beyond the art she creates. She is a symbol of resilience and innovation, inspiring a new generation of artists, especially women and Africans, to embrace their cultural heritage while exploring new artistic frontiers. Her journey demonstrates the potential of traditional art forms to adapt and thrive in the contemporary art world, encouraging young artists to find their unique voice within their cultural contexts.

Mahlangu’s legacy is also evident in her contribution to social justice initiatives. Her art, while aesthetically captivating, carries deeper narratives of identity, empowerment, and cultural pride. It challenges viewers to reconsider their perceptions of African art and its role in the global art narrative, aligning with broader themes of social justice and cultural representation as discussed in African Artists and Social Justice: Art as a Catalyst for Change on

As we journey through Esther Mahlangu’s artistic universe, it’s evident that her influence stretches far beyond the canvas. Her work is a vivid tapestry of tradition and modernity, a vibrant intersection where Ndebele art meets the global contemporary stage. Mahlangu’s art is not just a visual feast; it’s a cultural bridge, connecting the past with the present, the local with the global.

Her collaborations and the diverse mediums she explores are a testament to her versatility and willingness to experiment while staying true to her roots. Mahlangu has not only preserved her cultural heritage but elevated it, showcasing the dynamic and evolving nature of African art.

Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - (Ndebele Abstract 2020 | Acrylic on canvas | 100 x 150 cm)
Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - (Ndebele Abstract 2020 | Acrylic on canvas | 100 x 150 cm)

Cultural Ambassador: Bridging Worlds Through Art

Esther Mahlangu stands as a cultural ambassador, not just for the Ndebele people but for African art as a whole. Her work showcases the richness of African traditions and their relevance in contemporary art. By intertwining Ndebele motifs with modern artistic expressions, she bridges disparate worlds, offering a visual dialogue that speaks to the universality of art and its power to connect across cultural divides.

Her legacy is not confined to the galleries and museums where her work is exhibited. It extends into the hearts and minds of those who witness her art, encouraging a deeper appreciation and understanding of African cultural heritage. Mahlangu’s art challenges stereotypes and broadens perceptions, presenting African art not as a static, isolated tradition but as a dynamic, evolving force in the global art scene.

For an expanded view of how African art is shaping global narratives, visit African Artists and Social Justice: Art as a Catalyst for Change on

The Future Pathways: Inspiring the Next Generation

The legacy of Esther Mahlangu is not only in what she has created but also in what she inspires for the future. Her work paves the way for emerging artists, especially those from Africa and its diaspora, to explore and express their cultural identities in novel and innovative ways. Mahlangu’s story is a beacon of hope and inspiration, a testament to the possibilities that await when tradition and modernity converge in creative harmony.

As young artists look to Mahlangu, they see a path forward where their heritage can be a source of artistic strength, not a limitation. Her journey encourages them to experiment, to push boundaries, and to find their unique voice within the rich tapestry of African artistry.

A Living Legend: Celebrating Esther Mahlangu

As we wrap up this journey, we celebrate Esther Mahlangu not just as an artist but as a living legend. Her work, a vibrant fusion of tradition and innovation, serves as a reminder of the power of art to transcend barriers, to tell stories, and to preserve cultural legacies. Mahlangu’s art is a celebration of life, color, and the enduring spirit of the Ndebele people.

Her retrospective exhibition, “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting,” is more than a display of art; it is a narrative of resilience, creativity, and cultural pride. It invites us to witness the world through her eyes, to see the beauty in tradition, and to appreciate the art of storytelling through paint and patterns.

To explore more about Esther Mahlangu’s retrospective and her incredible journey, visit

Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - Ndebele Abstract (2017 | Acrylic on canvas | 96 x 168 cm)
Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective - Ndebele Abstract (2017 | Acrylic on canvas | 96 x 168 cm)
Dr. Abigail Adeyemi, art historian, curator, and writer with over two decades of experience in the field of African and diasporic art. She holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Oxford, where her research focused on contemporary African artists and their impact on the global art scene. Dr. Adeyemi has worked with various prestigious art institutions, including the Tate Modern and the National Museum of African Art, curating numerous exhibitions that showcase the diverse talents of African and diasporic artists. She has authored several books and articles on African art, shedding light on the rich artistic heritage of the continent and the challenges faced by contemporary African artists. Dr. Adeyemi's expertise and passion for African art make her an authoritative voice on the subject, and her work continues to inspire and inform both scholars and art enthusiasts alike.

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